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Russian magic tales which will help you to understand Russian culture

This week Matryoshka’s Diary is all about TALES. Our author Elena tells you about Russian magic tales and their unique features. Here is the most common scenario: the hero has one clear, linear task. At the end of it lies his reward, usually a princess. While accomplishing the task, he encounters various helpers, who offer him gifts or services. Helpers and obstacles appear from nowhere and disappear without a trace. Whatever is on that path, however, is lit up in brilliant primary colors: metallic reds, golds, blues. Throughout his travails, the hero expresses no astonishment, curiosity, longing, or fear, and apparently does not experience pain. He never reassesses his goal or his reward.

What is so special about Russian tales?

Magic tales are perhaps easier to recognize than to define. Most involve some kind of quest — often into the underground realm of a dangerous witch; this may be like a vestige of some shamanic initiation rite. Often the hero is able to achieve his goal only thanks to the wisdom and practical help provided by birds, fish or other creatures whom he has helped earlier in the tale; this, too, is reminiscent of a shaman calling on his spirit helpers. Sometimes the hero is transformed from bird or animal to human, or vice versa; sometimes he is cut to pieces, then put together again. Just as all initiation rites involve some kind of transformation and/or symbolic dismemberment, so do all magic tales.

‘The Tsarevna who would not Laugh’

‘The Tsarevna (a Russian version of Princess) who would not Laugh’ affords a striking example of the link between the magic tale and archaic rituals. The story begins with the Tsarevna sitting miserably in her room, unable to laugh or take any joy in life. Her father promises her in marriage to whoever first makes her laugh. A peasant has been working hard for three years, making his master’s crops grow and his animals multiply even in the most unpropitious conditions. While on his way to the city, this peasant shows kindness to a mouse, a beetle and a cat-fish. He then falls down in the mud outside the tsar’s palace. The three creatures appear and express their gratitude to him by cleaning him up. The Tsarevna sees all this from her window and laughs. A rival tries to take the credit for her laughter, but the Tsarevna points to the peasant and says that it was he who made her laugh. The Tsarevna then marries the peasant. Some people believe that laughter was once credited with the power to evoke life and — after the beginning of agriculture — with the power to bring fertility to crops.

The image of Russia in Russian magic tales

The Russian magic tale stands out in at least one other respect. Russia’s vastness and her backwardness compared with other European countries, meant that there was a much longer period during which it was possible for folklorists to study a relatively intact peasant culture. In Russia, an entire century passed between Pushkin’s first transcriptions of folktales and the assault on the peasantry constituted by Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. We cannot be certain how folktales were told four or five hundred years ago, but we do know that they were enjoyed by members of all social classes until the late 18th century.

The magic tale usually says little or nothing about the emotions experienced by a hero or heroine; situations and actions are left to speak for themselves. It is, no doubt, frightening to be approached in the forest by someone, but the storyteller’s reticence leaves the listener or reader free to sense this fear as much or as little as they choose. This is part of what lends these tales so universal an appeal.

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Our Author Elena

Elena’s favourite Russian tales:

  • Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf
  • Father Frost
  • Teremok
  • Vasilisa the Beautiful

Would you like to understand Russian culture and navigate the magical world of Russian literature or even be able to read Russian tales in the original language, Russian? Come study with us!